What is it about Britain that makes the Unionists proud? If you ask, it wont be long before someone mentions the war. Defence seems to be a keystone of belief in Britain, as if regiments, march pasts and memories of battles past are signposts to where our future lies.
Pride in the military is as British as Gilbert and Sullivan who satirised it scandalously and simultaneously played it like a violin for Victorian audiences. For in spite of all temptations, To belong to other nations, He remains an Englishman! I sing along like a true believer myself, happy to be English until the curtain comes down. (Coughs with embarrassment and leaves).
But what does defence tell us about the Britain of today?
First they are systematically dismantling the standing army which is going down in numbers from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2017 as the Ministry of Defence plugs a £38bn hole in the budget.
25,000 civilian staff working at the MoD face redundancy.
Meanwhile the government announced reservist numbers were to be doubled to 30,000 by 2018 to help fill the gap. However the number of reservists actually grew by only 60 – yes that’s sixty – in the last quarter of 2013 despite the Government’s drive to recruit 11,000 part-time soldiers by the end of the decade. Even this tiny increase followed a year in which the reserve actually shrank. So on one hand you have the dismay and fear of military families eyeing a bleak future – the experience of ex-soldiers in the jobs market isn’t good – and de-stabilising morale while they can’t attract part-time replacements.
One reason for this failure is a botched IT scheme designed to do the paperwork. More than 1000 troops have been drafted into recruitment offices to help overcome the IT fiasco at an extra cost of £1 million a month. You have to hope Captain Mainwaring is in command. Who was actually in charge of the online recruitment? Why privatised public services company Capita of course. Who else? The same company that took so long to process benefits payments for the terminally ill that many died before the cheque arrived. Yet last year the MoD closed over 20 Territorial Army centres, seven of them in Scotland.
At the same time soldier training courses for new recruits have been abandoned or curtailed because so few are turning up.
Perhaps one reason is the way the British treat their veterans. Hundreds of injured ex-soldiers are being declared fit for work by Atos Healthcare in spite of physical and mental injuries they suffered in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Scotland, we provide home for the Trident submarine fleet and half of the RAF combat squadron and – one reason why they need us in NATO – an array of radar, listening and monitoring devices and stations.
Our coast at Cape Wrath is a bombing range, they fire depleted uranium tank rounds into the sea – against international law – at Dundrennan in Kirkcudbright – they scrapped the Nimrod programme which provided long-range reconnaissance and surveillance, there are only five helicopters in the whole of Scotland, the navy does not have one major surface vessel based in our waters and only a single conventional naval vessel on the East coast. We lost 28 per cent of military personnel in four years against a UK average figure of 12 per cent, and there is an underspend here running into billions.
Then they tell us we can’t cope on our own and who would want to sign up to fight for Scotland anyway…and they would take away shipbuilding contracts and close the yards, throwing the men out of work – because overnight they would become foreigners to Britain and couldn’t be trusted to do their job. Oh, and there will be no more exploration for oil on the west coast in case it interferes with our subs. It’s a winning combination, isn’t it? Makes you proud to be British.
But how is there a £38b black hole in the accounts at the MoD? Well, the National Audit Office found in 2011 alone that their costs overran by £6b on major projects as well as being 30 months behind schedule. In the previous year it was £3b they couldn’t find. But as for the full £38bn even the MoD and the NAO can’t say how it’s arrived it. Nobody can actually add up the bits and pieces and confirm just how much the MoD has either lost is over budget. It is, literally, a black hole. Best look the other way.
The Americans don’t though. A few years ago, Hilary Clinton expressed worries about constant budget cuts in Britain’s military spending and only recently an American government official told journalists that if the UK was to remain a real partner able to offer full support in hardware and personnel, it needed to spend money on conventional forces, not on nuclear weapons. Britain doesn’t need them, because we’ve already got them, was his message.
Britain’s defences are becoming a joke, the First Sea Lord says so… ‘hollowed out’ was his phrase. Even our partners are worried and the referendum is threatening to undermine the viability of nuclear deterrence. It isn’t Scotland that’s out of line in this parade. We’re in step with the smaller smarter countries keeping their defences conventional and proportionate and within a realistic budget. It’s overblown, bragging Britain that is festooned with plumes, medals and braid and ceremonial swords while all it can fight with is a choice between nuclear catastrophe and a toothpick.
(By the way, Wine Club Platinum Members, loyalty cards on their way soon!)by